Perched in the lofty heights of Taksim’s Tepebaşı district, Pera Museum occupies a breathtaking historical structure originally constructed in the 19th century.
For the past month, however, it hasn’t just been the architecture that has caught passersby’s attention, but the proud stare of Frida Kahlo, often referred to as “The People’s Artist,” glaring down upon İstanbul from a billowing banner.
Kahlo’s works, alongside those of her husband, Diego Rivera, have made it to Turkey for the first time in this major show at the Pera Museum, which will remain here until March 20. “Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera from the Gelman Collection” has been running since late December and with 45,000 visitors recorded in the first 30 days, public interest has surpassed all expectations.
Drawing from the extensive collection of Mexican art collectors Jacques and Natasha Gelman, the exhibition builds on the recent “Frida Kahlo -- Retrospective” display shown in Berlin and Vienna where some of Kahlo’s most renowned self portraits were displayed -- to include examples of Rivera’s canvas paintings and a choice selection of intense and striking photographs from some of the greatest photographers of the time to whom Kahlo posed an irresistibly exotic subject.
Late on a recent Saturday afternoon, the third floor of the museum, where the exhibition is showcased, was still swarming with visitors. At a stage when Turkish culture is becoming increasingly more engaged with the wider international art scene, the work of this enigmatic Latin American pair has arrived, it seems, at just the right time.
Featuring over 40 pieces on a suitably Latin American mustard yellow backdrop, the exhibition is neither large nor overly adventurous. What it does deliver is a selection of some of the artists’ most famous pieces and a biography, albeit a brief one, of a couple whose exceptional works and turbulent love story have captured the hearts and minds of art enthusiasts for decades.
“What do you make of Frida?” I ask a group of students poring over a biographical excerpt. “It’s just so fascinating to see,” one of them offers after a pause, “how through the self focus in her own work, her image has become so completely distinctive.” At this point we look together at the striking series of photographs taken by Hungarian photographer, Nickolas Muray, where Kahlo’s intense stare is accentuated by the extraordinary colors in her exotic clothing. Whilst it is mentioned that Kahlo had a long affair with Muray, in general the exhibition goes into little detail about the truly polygamous nature of Rivera and Kahlo’s marriage.
Indeed in this sense it could be argued that there is an air of sanitization about the display, a consideration supported also by the lack of any of Kahlo’s truly tormented and often distressing later works. Such an observation must be seen, however, in the context of the nature of the exhibition, which is essentially just as focused on the lives of the Gelmans and the displaying of their collection as the artists themselves. The screening of a 40-minute film “The Life and Death of Frida Kahlo,” which premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1966, adds extra biographical detail for those not familiar with the story.
What is interesting, of course, is the balance struck between the focus placed on the two artists. During their lifetime, despite society’s considerable appreciation for Kahlo’s work, it is arguable that Rivera, adored by the intellectual elite in Mexico, was always one step ahead. To many Frida was but a peculiarity, a novelty perhaps, and it was only really in the 1960s, with the rise of feminism, gay rights and identity politics that her work began to make sense -- and what sense it made. It was Frida, of course, who had been ahead of her contemporaries all along, graying the boundaries of gender, merging ethnicities and revolutionizing the concept of “beauty” long before many had even touched upon such a comprehension.
Pera’s exhibition does certainly seem to be more Frida orientated; the film shown is solely focused on her and despite the fact that to speak of Frida’s life is to essentially speak of Diego’s, it will ultimately be with Kahlo’s dark mono-brow and searching glare etched in your mind that you will leave the museum.
For devoted Frida followers the attraction of the Pera exhibition will be an opportunity to explore and learn about the Gelman collection. For those less informed the display provides the perfect introduction to the life and works of the eccentric Mexican pair. With the exhibition open to the public for another six weeks, it seems likely that Pera Museum will carry on drawing in the masses as the Turkish people continue to fall in love with “The People’s Artist.”